What is a ‘Critical Friend’?

As I’m moving towards further study and consulting next year, the most popular service I’ve been asked about has been the ‘critical friend’ role mentioned on my website. It’s an exciting and interesting role because it allows me to work with very diverse schools and requires an ongoing relationship with schools rather than just a one-off session.

The role of a ‘critical friend’ has been around for a long time, with the term coined (in an educational context) in 1994 as an offshoot of Professional Learning Communities. Since then, the role has been used in all levels of education to support change processes, curriculum design, and strategic work.

It shares similarities with coaching and mentoring, but differs in that the relationship has the added aspect of critically engaging with the processes in a school, asking questions, and giving honest and open feedback.

What does a Critical Friend do?

The short answer is “whatever the school needs”, but it’s a little more complex than that. A critical friend is in a “trusted advisor” position, and might offer advice on a range of areas. This means that the role of the critical friend can vary greatly depending on the school’s needs and the critical friend’s skill set.

In my case, I’ll be working with schools in a few different capacities, including:

  • Overseeing the implementation of a whole school literacy program with a focus on improving reading engagement
  • Redesigning curriculum in line with a school’s strategic plan, including reviewing the processes, professional learning, and structure of the timetable
  • Supporting a new head of faculty responsible for bringing together a new faculty team
  • Advising on a digital and hybrid learning strategy to add as an additional strategic direction to an existing strategic intent
  • Reviewing a school’s strategic intent and exploring gaps and opportunities in light of the last few years of change in the education system
  • Implementing a school’s strategic plan by using one faculty as a “pilot” for taking action on the strategic pillars
  • Connecting a school with other support networks, including identifying the best consultants for the school to work with in data analysis, improving numeracy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

The role is many and varied, which is what makes it so exciting. Another interesting aspect of the critical friend model is that the CF doesn’t come to the school with a particular program or strategy to “fix” a given problem. Although I regularly work with schools on implementing Reading Strategies and whole school literacy programs, my work as a critical friend sits outside of those programs. I’ll be supporting schools in designing their own processes, leaning heavily on the school’s context, the existing skills of the staff, and the nature of the students.

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How long does a Critical Friend relationship last?

Again, the short answer is “as long as it takes”. There is an expectation that a CF engagement would last for at least a term, likely a semester, and possibly a whole year. The relationship needs to be built on trust and a comprehensive understanding of the school’s needs, so it must be more than a one-off workshop or seminar.

The CF role includes regular check-ins with teams and individuals, as well as the expectation that the school can contact the CF whenever they need help. This means being open to emails, calls, and video calls to quickly address questions and issues as they arise.

Methods and processes

The methods used vary from school to school and depending on the skills of the CF. In my case, I use a mixture of face to face and online sessions, including 1:1s with team leaders and whole group sessions. A typical engagement might include a meeting or two with the team leader to establish what is needed, then an initial session with the whole team, followed by regular check-ins and online support. At the end of the term, semester, or both, another whole team meeting is useful to make sure everyone is still on board with the changes. This is especially important when engaging in strategic planning to ensure clarity throughout the whole team.

There may be a period of research and brainstorming, or a process of evaluating an ongoing pilot. In the case of major changes, it may be useful to organise student or community surveys, focus groups, and interviews. There are many great tools available for a CF to use with schools.

Ultimately, the CF role exists to help teachers and school leaders. In a setting where burnout is high and workloads can be unmanageable, a Critical Friend helps to take some of the guesswork out of bringing in new programs and strategies. For school leadership, it offers a unique external perspective and another trusted party to discuss and test ideas with.

I’m thoroughly looking forward to working with schools next year as a Critical Friend. If you’re interested in learning more about how I’ll be working with schools next year, and whether my help would be useful to your school, please get in touch using the form below.

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